Olentangy Liberty had trouble finding the end zone all night, but managed to punch it in when it mattered most.
Brendon White ran for a touchdown and threw for another on back-to-back possessions to help Liberty to its first Division I regional title with a 24-20 victory over Lorain Friday night at Ram Field at StarTek Stadium in Mansfield.
“This team’s been up against it several times this year,” Patriots coach Steve Hale said. “I think their character and determination to keep fighting … that’s all we asked them to do at halftime was keep fighting.”
White caught a 23-yard pass from Mitchell Okuley on third-and-15 before he found Johnny Wiseman for the go-ahead touchdown with 10:54 left.
“I (ran) a corner — coach said break it at the 10 (yard line) — so that’s what I did,” White said. “I knew we had the momentum from there.”
Liberty had to hold on after Daesean Brooks hooked up with Zion Cross on a 59-yard flea-flicker — a play which got Lorain to the Liberty 14 with 34 seconds left. Will Fowler saved the touchdown by making the tackle on the play.
“I’m just thankful that I was able to get him to the ground,” Fowler said.
Lorain quarterback Justin Sturgill missed on four straight passes after that, which included a pass break-up by Wiseman.
The Patriots (13-0) faced a 10-point deficit in the third quarter before scoring on back-to-back possessions.
“We’ve been through this,” White said. “We always talk about it, that we are a team, we have each other’s back and we can trust one another … and we did that.”
Okuley hooked up with Ben Rinsma on a 39-yard fly route to set up a White 1-yard touchdown with 1:06 left in the third quarter. Rinsma led Liberty with 92 yards receiving on four catches.
Matt Webb had 92 yards rushing to lead the Patriots.
The Titans (10-3) took advantage of two big plays in the first half. Sturgill faked a backward pass on fourth down and found Daesean Brooks over the middle on a slant. Brooks turned it into a 37-yard touchdown for a 6-0 lead with 2:09 left in the first quarter.
“That’s a really good football team … really good,” Hale said. “Coach (Dave McFarland) has them playing really hard. He’s got some really good players.”
A.J. Smith’s 51-yard field goal attempt was tipped at the line and caught at the 1 by Lorain’s Carlos Chavis, who weaved left, then right on a 99-yard touchdown return to push the Titan lead to 12-3 with 6:24 left in the half.
Smith connected on a 22-yard field goal to get the Patriots on the board a couple of minutes earlier.
Aaron Huff capped Lorain’s opening drive of the second half with a 19-yard run on a dive and added the two-point conversion to make it a 20-10 game.
“I thought we struggled a little bit early,” Hale said. “It was probably a little bit of nerves — first time in the regional championship. I thought our kids fought through a lot of adversity really well.”
Chavis ran for 70 yards on 22 carries to lead the Titans and Huff added 40 yards on 12 rushes.
The Patriots held Lorain to 3-for-8 on fourth down and 3-for-17 on third down.
“There were a lot of things we weren’t doing (in the first half),” Patriots senior defensive end Drew Rosi said. “All in all, when we were able to correct those things, we were able to shut them down.”
Liberty faces Cleveland St. Ignatius in the state semifinal Friday night at a site to be determined.
Follow Michael Rich on Twitter @mrichdelgazette.